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University CIO on meeting the challenge of application consolidation

Utah State University's Eric Hawley considers application consolidation a chief mandate for today's CIO -- and he's prepared to do whatever it takes to deliver on it.

For Eric Hawley, CIO at Utah State University (USU), the No. 1 reason to consolidate applications is to reduce complexity. "Complexity is the harbinger of decline -- of a security breach, of the inability to get involved in big data or data mining, because you have stuff all over the place. You don't know where it is, you don't know who's controlling it and you've got too many systems solving too many specific needs," he said. 

With the enterprise's need to quickly access and mobilize data, application consolidation is a top priority for IT leaders, Hawley said, or should be. "My view is CIO stands for chief integration officer, and in this day and age, the job is to integrate multiple systems so they feel closer to one."

Not many CIOs would disagree with the view that application consolidation is a laudable goal and an important part of their jobs. Maintaining complex, redundant applications eats up resources and, as Hawley points out, gets in the way of strategic IT initiatives -- or worse, invites disaster. But, as many CIOs also can attest, application consolidation is easier said than done. Indeed, most initial application rational efforts fail -- "often fatally," according to a recent report from Forrester Research.

"Most firms attempt to rationalize their application portfolios two or more times before they see any real success. Some firms never attempt a second effort after the initial failure," states author Phil Murphy, principal analyst for application development and delivery at the Cambridge, Mass-based IT consultancy. 

Virtually all the failures exhibit a common theme, Murphy finds: "Team members inventory the applications and collect some data, without a lot of forethought about how it will be used." Applications are inventoried, often over a period of several months, but without a clear strategy, the information collected tends to be whatever is easiest to get -- platform, language, database, vendor, user satisfaction -- and the payoff moment never comes.

"In our experience these efforts rarely yield the kind of 'aha!' moments their leaders hope for," the Forrester report states.

CRM consolidation to fulfill a core mission

Hawley emphatically agrees. Integrating applications at Utah State University is a huge challenge, he said, and not just because of the size and complexity of this public university -- three regional campuses, eight colleges, a distance learning center, with nearly 30,000 students, more than 800 faculty and some 1,600 staff.

Eric HawleyEric Hawley

"Too often, we dive into data consolidation efforts or data interfacing efforts without having a clear indicator in our own minds of the questions we need to ask," he said. 

Hawley likened these undertakings to embarking on a big family road trip to Cancun with no discussion about what the family hopes to get out of it. If just getting there is the goal, then driving 20 hours a day with limited pee breaks and the kids fuming in the back seat might make sense. If the goal, however, is to have fun as a family, "that road trip will be a very different experience," he said.  The same lack of clarity plagues many application consolidation efforts. "Too often, the IT people have no clue what the business' objective is; they know they're going to Cancun but haven't thought about why."

Moreover, just as often the business hasn't thought through the objectives either -- or, more problematic for IT, wants no part of the project. One of the high priority application consolidation projects Hawley's team is working on involves CRM, the software tool for managing customer relations.

"Right now, there are five or six different CRMs at different colleges with wildly different approaches. [Each] feels they are in some way their own special snowflake -- they have to do it their way," he said. Using disparate systems, however, has been shown to undermine an important university objective, Hawley said, namely "recruiting and retaining those people who are the bottom line of the university." They include the tuition-paying students, donors and other supporters of USU.

A half-dozen different CRM tools means that the same donors are solicited numerous times, student messaging is inconsistent and the university comes across as muddled (not to mention annoying) in the eyes of the very people its needs to court. "We are USU; we're not just individual colleges competing against one and other, but one unit," Hawley said.

The solution in this case will be moving to a common CRM application (ideally software as a service) that "will not force people to behave in the same way" to their target audience, but will provide a common communication platform, Hawley said. The risk, of course, is that the university ends up with a seventh CRM tool, and "nobody is getting rid of the one they had," Hawley concedes, pointing to the webcomic XKCD's jaundiced take on standards. "That is the challenge we face on the application side."

The platform route and APIs

Hawley said another approach his team is using to reduce IT complexity is to build standardized platforms that IT supports and that it can train people to use. "We are working on building standard APIs with interfaces into HR, financial aid data, student finance … and offer up that platform to individual departments to do creative things with," he said.

Before, when a user required access to data or a custom application, IT would build a direct interface between the database and the user's application. "Before you know it, you've got to maintain an interface between 600 different applications that may have been implemented in different ways," Hawley said. Platform standardization still allows for application or data diversity, but provides templates and plug-ins people can use, for example, to build department websites, he said, offering up a metaphor. "People are building with Legos as opposed to each using their own injected molded plastic pieces."

Email Linda Tucci, executive editor, or find her on Twitter @ltucci.

Four tips to succeed at application consolidation

According to Forrester Research, most companies fail at their first few attempts at application consolidation. As outlined by SearchCIO's Kristen Lee, here are four tips aimed at application development and delivery professionals from analyst Phil Murphy, application development delivery specialist at Forrester:

Define the goal. Portfolio management and app rationalization share the same goal: transparency into resource allocation and consumption. Transparency into consumption patterns will bring insight into how consumption and resources may need to change.

Define the problem. Spell out why you need more transparency into resource allocation and consumption? Is it to reduce operation costs and waste, eliminate redundant apps and increase resources for innovation?

Define the audience. Who are you trying to convince that applications need to be winnowed? Are you talking to developers? Technology management professionals? The data you collect on application bloat and the insight you provide needs to be tailored to your audience. If business leaders or executive management are your audience, Murphy advises avoiding technical jargon and metrics to try to win them over.

Define (and collect) the data that will resonate with your audience. Figure out which data (or combinations of data) will create a compelling story for whomever it is you are presenting to. Then go out and get it, working with other departments, such as finance and internal audit, if need be, to get it.

Source: "The Secret to Rationalizing Applications: Start With the End in Mind," a Forrester Research report published Dec. 26, 2014.

Next Steps

Eric Hawley, CIO at Utah State University, was SearchCIO's 2013 IT Leader of the Year for his efforts to centralize IT at this public university.

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